“I have not come to abolish [the law] but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17
For thirty years I worked in a highly regulated industry, which often put me in the uncomfortable position of being an enforcer of rules, playing policeman at times, which among my duties was my least favorite. Fortunately, though, the vast majority of people are honest and fair-minded in their business dealings. It’s those few who are not who tested my wits and patience.
Upholding the “letter” of the law was seldom the issue. The challenge was dealing with the gray areas, and with laws, rules and regulations there inevitably exist gray areas. Thus, disputes arose not about the specific boundaries set by the rules; rather, within those boundaries what was fair in a particular circumstance, and determining fairness was a gray area. As I said, the vast majority not only comply with the letter of the law, but do so within the spirit of it, that is a spirit of fairness. Those few who tested my wits and patience, however, complied with the letter of the law because they had to, but had little regard for the spirit of it.
This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “I have not come to abolish [the law] but to fulfill them.” This was at the core of his ongoing dispute with the Pharisees who were the lawyers of his day. The Pharisees were strict defenders of the letter of the law, so much so that they had lost sight of the spirit of it. That is why when Jesus was asked which is the greatest among the commandments, he replied it is to love God and love your neighbor. “All the Law and the Prophets,” he explained, “hang on these two commandments.” Jesus, in other words, did not diminish the letter of the law, but redirected the focus to a deeper meaning, that is the spirit for which it was written.
Now is a time like no other in our collective lifetimes, to experience this most important theme of Jesus’ teachings; for the laws being imposed and the sacrifices we are being asked to make during this coronavirus pandemic, if only temporary, are indeed onerous, extreme, and restrictive. But if we can redirect our focus toward their deeper purpose, that is the spirit for which they have been established, which is to love and honor God by loving our neighbors, keeping them safe and cared for – as well as ourselves – then we will have experienced obedience to the greatest among all the commandments.